Silent Rain: New Excerpt

Silent Rain by Karin Salvalaggio
Silent Rain by Karin Salvalaggio
Silent Rain by Karin Salvalaggio is the 4th book in the Macy Greeley Mystery series (available May 9, 2017).

Grace Adams has spent three years trying to move on—mentally, physically, emotionally—from the traumatizing events of her past. But it’s not easy when the world is morbidly curious about the crimes that shaped her childhood, when despite her changed name, people still track her down for the sensational details. Now in college in Bolton, Montana, the one person Grace has trusted with the truth about her past has betrayed her. The bestselling novelist Peter Granger wants to use Grace’s story in his next book, regardless of how desperate Grace is to keep the details to herself. And then, on Halloween night, Peter Granger’s house burns to the ground and his and his wife’s bodies are found inside.

Montana state detective Macy Greeley is sent to Bolton to handle the investigation into the fire and deaths…which soon appear to be arson and murder. It doesn’t take Macy long to realize that Grace isn’t the only one whom Peter Granger has betrayed, and there are no shortage of others in town who took issue with him and his wife. What at first looked like a straightforward investigation is poised to expose some of Bolton’s darkest secrets, and the fallout may put more than one life in danger.

1

Halloween Night—Monday

The man standing shoulder to shoulder with Grace in the crowded Main Street bar took a sip of whiskey and let out a wistful sigh.

“If only a woman could make me feel this good inside,” he said.

Grace studied her own drink. The Long Island Iced Tea that sat before her was so vast and dark it appeared bottomless. She had a taste but did not sigh.

“You’re expecting a lot from a beverage,” she said.

The man’s laugh twisted into a rattling cough that cut him someplace deep inside. He was teary-eyed when he spoke again.

“Actually, I’m expecting a lot from a woman.”

Their reflections were visible in the mirror above the bar. The man’s long face floated like an apparition among the shelves of bottled spirits while Grace’s distorted image was nestled within the long-stemmed martini glasses. She didn’t recognize herself at first glance, disguised as she was in a Halloween costume. She’d traded her short dark bob for a wig of long wavy blond hair topped with a glittering tiara she’d borrowed from a friend. Normally partial to vintage dresses not seen since the 1950s, she wore a long pink prom dress draped with a red sash. The man caught her eye in the mirror and winked.

“I bet you’re prettier when you smile,” he said.

“I’ll take that under advisement,” she deadpanned.

“You can take it however you like. My advice is free.”

He whipped a comb out of a pocket of his leather jacket and slicked back his jet-black hair. The long fringes that hung from the sleeves danced in the air between them. A small trophy sat on the perfectly polished bar next to his drink. Grace touched the shiny metal statuette of Elvis with her fingertips. It wasn’t cold like she expected. She tapped it with her fingernail. Definitely plastic.

Every year the K-Bar on Main Street held a themed costume party on Halloween night. This year you had to dress up like Elvis or Priscilla Presley if you wanted to be considered for the grand prize but they’d added a twist for Elvis impersonators. You not only had to look like the King, you had to dance like him too. The prize money had been set at $500. Grace and her friends had arrived in costume but too late to see the show.

“Did you win?” she asked.

“Wasn’t difficult,” he said, shrugging like it was nothing. “The competition here tonight was pretty amateurish.”

Grace almost laughed but then corrected herself. Laughing would mean smiling and she wasn’t in the mood. Besides, it sounded like he took pride in his achievements and there was nothing wrong with that.

“I’m curious,” she said, drawing her words out more than she normally would because she was a little drunk. “Are you a professional Elvis impersonator?”

He placed a business card on the bar between them.

“Best gig in the world,” he said.

His voice was honeyed with that unique Elvis baritone. Grace had to admit she found it attractive. She read the card. The man standing next to her wasn’t just Elvis. He was also Conway Twitty, Neil Sedaka, and Neil Diamond. Among other things he was available for corporate events, weddings, birthday parties, and bar mitzvahs. He posted videos of his performances on his Web site.

“May I take this?” said Grace.

He nodded. “My number is on it. Call me anytime.”

Grace slipped the card into a slim gold purse. She wouldn’t be calling this particular Elvis but she might stalk him online for a bit. She had to admit that she was curious. He was an older man. She wondered how he still managed to swivel his hips like Elvis. He certainly had swagger and it was the first time she’d met someone, male or female, who could pull off wearing tight leather trousers.

“So, what do you say, little lady?” he persisted. “A little smile for the best Elvis impersonator in Bolton?”

Grace forced her lips into a grin of sorts.

“I suppose that’s a start,” he said, opening a wallet stuffed with bills. “Can I buy you a drink?”

Grace held up her twelve-ounce Long Island Iced Tea, her version of a trophy.

“Thank you, but I’m spoken for.”

She made a point of glancing over her shoulder as if indicating that someone out there in the crowded barroom was eagerly awaiting her company.

“No worries,” he said, picking up his drink and trophy and moving on. He tipped an imaginary hat. “Have a good evening.”

Grace slid her drink a little farther along the bar where she settled onto an empty stool next to two guys dressed as priests. She didn’t like when men told her to smile. Being pretty was all well and good but she wanted to be taken more seriously these days. Besides, she’d been groped far too many times over the course of the evening to be in the mood for smiling. The guys frequenting the bars on Main Street would no doubt hold up their hands and say it was an accident, but Grace and her girlfriends knew better. To be fair, it did always seem worse on Halloween night. People didn’t consider themselves bound by the usual rules of decorum when they were dressed up as someone else. It didn’t help that everyone was drunk, herself included. Lines were being crossed everywhere she looked.

Grace once again checked her reflection in the mirror above the bar. Her wig and tiara were slightly askew so she straightened them, tucking her black hair in where it was poking through. The tiara was on loan from her girlfriend Lara, and Grace was under strict instructions to look after it. Whether it was an actual prom-queen tiara was a matter of debate. For someone known for oversharing online, Lara was very cagey about her comfortably middle-class roots. Apparently, it was much cooler if a debut novelist’s parents were blue collar or, better yet, unemployed and, above all else, Lara dreamed of becoming a novelist.

They’d gone shopping together at a secondhand store for the prom dress Grace was wearing. Lara had gone into hysterics every time Grace had emerged from the changing room. When the cashier asked Grace if it was for a special occasion, Grace didn’t have the heart to tell her she was going home to pour fake blood all over it. So far the costume had been an utter failure. Everyone she’d come across had thought she’d dressed up as a murderess version of Priscilla Presley.

Grace saw someone’s reflection in the mirror and nearly tipped over her drink as she swung around to have a better look. She scanned the crowd near the front doors, slipping down from the barstool when she realized who she’d seen. A man she knew only as Jordan was standing by himself near the entrance. At around five foot nine with light brown hair and a beard, there wasn’t anything remarkable about him. Grace guessed he was at least thirty but may have been older. When he’d first started coming into the coffee shop where she worked she’d thought he was a lonely guy, but her opinion changed when she’d caught him taking her picture. She really should have confronted him or, better yet, called the police. Soon after, he started showing up for all her shifts. A week later she noticed he was tailing her as she drove through town, his dusty green Bronco filling her rearview mirror every time she checked.

Jordan was no more determined than the others who’d managed to track her down, but this time she’d decided to wait a little longer before calling the police as she was hoping he’d eventually lose interest and leave town if she ignored him. Jordan was her fifth stalker in two years and she was pretty sure the local authorities were tired of hearing from her. The last police officer she’d spoken to had seemed impatient to take down the details and get her out of his office. Afterward, she’d spotted him speaking to a colleague. He’d nodded his head in her direction and laughed.

Now she was worried she’d left it too late. Jordan didn’t seem as harmless as he was at the beginning, when he’d stammered through his coffee order and then blushed when she’d asked him his name so she could write it down on the takeaway cup. Instead of backing off, he now seemed emboldened. Grace was beginning to think he could be violent but that wasn’t what concerned her most. She was more frightened that he might want to speak to her about the events that took place in Collier, a small town in northern Montana where she’d lived until she was eighteen. The case had been in the news for months and every detail of her life had been exposed, but that didn’t stop people from wanting to know more. Grace had told her side of the story only once and she wouldn’t be making that mistake again.

She headed into the crowd that had gathered near the doors leading out onto the back patio. She needed to find her friend Lara. One of the many hard-won lessons she’d learned growing up in Collier was that strange men like Jordan were to be avoided at all costs.

Grace heard Lara before she saw her. Lara was happiest when she had the full attention of the opposite sex, and at present she was smiling broadly as she stood next to a dark-eyed Elvis impersonator dressed in army fatigues. Her eyes were at half-mast and her long white arms waved about like fragile fairy wings. She raised her phone high and shushed the group surrounding her. Years of smoking had made her voice a husky mess.

“I’m going to get a photo of every Elvis in this shit hole tonight.” Lara swung her camera in a slow arc, losing focus on her task when she caught sight of Grace.

“That drink better have my name on it,” said Lara. She moved toward Grace, looking determined.

“It was a gift from a bartender who owes me for a free coffee,” said Grace, a little unsteady on her feet. “I’m only too happy to share the spoils. Truthfully,” she slurred. “I think I’m a little wasted.”

Lara plucked the glass from Grace’s hand and downed half of it in one go. Keeping to the bar’s Elvis theme, Lara had dressed as Priscilla, the early years. Despite hours in costume she still looked fresh and alive. Grace, on the other hand, was wilting. She wanted to go home and was hoping Lara felt the same way.

Lara leaned in, eyes wide. She touched the tip of Grace’s nose. “Perk up, babe.”

Grace started to speak but Lara shushed her.

“What do you think of Hawaiian Elvis?” said Lara.

Lara pointed to a gathering of Elvis wannabes perched around some high tables. Grace had to admit that the odds were in Lara’s favor. There wasn’t a single Priscilla in sight.

Grace let Lara drag her across the room. Most people thought Lara was difficult company, but Grace was too grateful for their improbable friendship to take much notice. Lara had moved into Grace’s spare bedroom eighteen months earlier. Grace hadn’t grown up with girlfriends, shared secrets, and sleepovers, so she didn’t really understand the dynamics as well as she should have at nearly twenty-one years of age. She’d learned to fake her way through most situations, but living in close quarters had proved to be a unique challenge. Thankfully, Lara seemed oblivious to Grace’s missteps. She introduced Grace to all her friends and even arranged a fake driver’s license for Grace so they could go out together. Grace had never before felt so carefree. Grace returned the favor by overlooking Lara’s worse excesses. There’d been a lot of men and a great deal of alcohol consumed since she moved in. There’d also been a lot of tears. When Lara was upset she drank and slept around. When Grace was upset she packed her bags and threatened to run home to Collier, a town where there were precisely zero people waiting for her. It had been Lara who’d convinced Grace to stay in Bolton when everything fell apart.

“Hawaiian Elvis does have a touch of the exotic about him,” said Grace. She peered a little closer. “But that may be the fake tan talking.”

The Vegas Elvis wore a white satin body suit, cape, and rhinestones, and the Hawaiian Elvis smelled like bronzer and cheap cologne. All product and no substance, the flower lei draped around his thin neck was looking as if it had gone through several seasons, but then again so did his face. He was a lot older than he’d initially appeared. Makeup powdered the deep lines that creased his eyes. There was something else that was odd about him that Grace couldn’t quite place. He was a little too jumpy and kept making weird comments. Grace was wedged in tight between the two of them. Grace could tell Lara had already gone off Hawaiian Elvis, no doubt her attention already on some new opportunity. She was dithering with her phone’s camera.

Grace was feeling more and more uncomfortable. Vegas Elvis was big, bordering on fat. He didn’t so much as hold Grace tight but swallow her whole. He whispered in Grace’s ear. He didn’t smell of fake tan, he smelled of nylon and sweat.

“I think I might head home. Need a ride?”

Grace focused in on the camera, ignoring Lara’s request that she smile.

“Lara, take the damn picture.”

Lara stared at the screen on her phone with a barely-there look on her face.

“I got it,” she said, waving one of her fairy arms into the air triumphantly. She reached for Grace’s hand. “Come on, Grace, let’s go find the others. Clare is over there somewhere.” She smiled. “Made a little rhyme. Clever me.”

Grace slid out from Vegas Elvis’s embrace. His thick fingers lingered on her neck. She shuddered. As usual she’d managed to pull a couple of weirdos. Hawaiian Elvis pressed his hand to the small of her back and yanked her roughly to one side. Her heel was caught on the hem of the prom dress she was wearing. She nearly toppled over.

“Let her go,” said Lara. “We’re leaving.”

Hawaiian Elvis didn’t give up easily.

“What was all that noise you were making a few minutes ago when you were asking us to buy you a drink? Seemed like we were good enough then.”

“Don’t be an asshole,” said Lara, cutting him off cold. “Grace, babe. We gotta go.”

“What a couple of bitches,” he said, giving Grace a hard shove.

Grace lost her balance and went down hard on a floor that was slick with spilled drinks. She tried to get up but her long dress was tangled around her legs. Lara grabbed her by the arm and pulled her to her feet. She had to shout in Grace’s ear to be heard.

“This is shit,” said Lara. “Let’s get out of here.”

Grace could barely stand up straight. She didn’t feel right. Everything in her peripheral vision was blurred. Even Lara’s voice was distorted. She felt her head. A bump was forming. Grace winced.

“I hit my head.”

“Are you going to hurl?”

“Maybe.”

“Time to move,” said Lara. She raised her voice. “Out of my way, bitches. My girl is going to hurl.” She laughed. “Another rhyme.”

They huddled together on the wooden walkway in front of the bar. It was much cooler outside. Brittle autumn leaves skirted across the pavement and the American flag whipped around on its pole like a dancer. Their friend Clare’s car wasn’t parked across the street anymore.

“Damn, I’m freezing,” said Lara.

“Where’s Clare?” asked Grace. “Our coats are in her car.”

“No idea. She was in a bit of a mood.” Lara waved her cigarette in the air. “It may be something I said.”

“Nothing new there.”

“We should go back inside and wait for her.”

“No, thanks. It’s that time of night when everything gets a little weird.”

Lara lit a cigarette and drew deeply. “Some guys get so agro when they drink. It’s boring.”

Grace felt unsteady. “Well, I’m through for the night. I can barely stand up straight.”

“I hear you. All this drinking is getting me nowhere. I need to focus on my writing.”

Grace held tight to the wooden walkway’s railing. Their conversation had landed on familiar territory. Lara hadn’t been able to work on her new novel for weeks. She’d sit for hours, declare it was all crap, and delete everything she’d written. All Grace had to do was say the same things she always did and it would be fine.

“Sounds good,” said Grace. “Stop messing around so much and focus on what matters. Writing is what keeps you sane.”

Lara pulled her hair back from her face. For someone with so much bravado she looked incredibly vulnerable.

“It’s getting embarrassing. I made all that noise about getting published and nothing has happened.” Cigarette ash flicked into the wind. “I think my agent is going to dump me if I don’t get a contract soon.”

“You’re not going to get dumped. Aren’t you their wunderkind? Tomorrow you can make a new start. “

“Tomorrow I’ll be too hungover to do much of anything.”

“Same here.” Grace checked to see if Jordan was loitering nearby. Satisfied, she started to make a move. “I’m going home now. Do you want to come?”

“We really should find Clare first.”

“Her car’s gone so I bet she’s gone too.”

“We’ll freeze without our coats,” said Lara.

Grace adjusted her faux fur cape so it covered her shoulders.

“No one is freezing. Fifteen minutes and we’re home.”

Lara stubbed out her cigarette. “I’ll go find Clare. She’ll be pissed if she thinks we left without her. Are you really going to be okay on your own?”

“Better on my own than hanging out with fat Elvis,” said Grace, thinking heels or not, she’d run all the way home if she had to.

*   *   *

A historic residential neighborhood separated Main Street and the small liberal arts college where Grace was majoring in art. The crowded bars were only a few blocks away, but here it seemed everyone had already gone to sleep. Mature trees arched gracefully over well-tended lawns and wide driveways. Streetlamps glowed at precise intervals and light pooled beneath deep front porches.

Grace ran with her arms spread wide and her high heels slapping the empty stretch of sidewalk, bursting into laugher every time she stumbled. Halfway home she bent over and clutched her side. She took a few deep breaths before continuing at a slower pace. The night air didn’t feel as cold here among the houses and sheltering trees. The long hem of her prom dress dragged on the ground, picking up twigs, leaves, and candy wrappers. She occasionally stopped to admire the Halloween decorations draped from every house.

A bowl of candy had been left on the front steps of a particularly grand red brick home. Grace stopped to pick through the remains before settling back on the wide sloping front lawn. She worked her way through several miniature candy bars, tossing the wrappers over her shoulder one by one. She pulled off one of her shoes and held it up to the porch light. It was ruined, but then again so was her foot. The skin was creased and there was a blister the size of a quarter on her left heel. She slipped the other shoe off and laced the straps through her fingertips. It was only ten minutes further to her apartment building. It wouldn’t be the first time she’d walked home barefoot.

The bump on the side of her head was tender to the touch. She couldn’t figure out what she’d struck as she’d fallen to the floor but assumed it was someone’s knee. She felt the top of her head. Lara’s tiara was missing. Grace checked the lawn surrounding her before retracing her steps. She’d briefly become entangled in the low-lying branches of an elm tree as she ran down a particularly dark stretch of sidewalk. If the tiara was anywhere to be found, it would be there. She guessed that the tree was a couple of blocks away but she couldn’t really be sure of anything except for the fact that she was still very drunk. She lay back on the lawn and flung her arms out to her sides.

Surrender.

She was actually feeling content. Now she just had to make that feeling last longer than the alcohol buzz. She closed her eyes and imagined the childhood home she’d left behind in Collier. She’d recently come across an article in the newspaper. The house on Summit Road had been vandalized. Someone had spray-painted a warning on the garage door. They’d wanted to be sure the world remembered what kind of monster her uncle was. They’d even been thoughtful enough to leave a postscript. Apparently they were hoping he’d burn in hell. Grace let her mind drift through the empty rooms they’d once occupied. Her uncle had taught her how to drive, fish, and fire a gun. He’d put a roof over her head when no one else wanted her. Not once did he touch her. Not once did he raise his hand in anger. Not once did Grace meet the monster.

An emergency vehicle’s sirens woke Grace from a deep sleep. Her back was damp from lying on the grass and she was shaking from the cold. She fumbled with her phone but no amount of button pushing would bring the dead battery to life. She strained her ears and heard what might have been the dull roar of traffic and crowds along Main Street. She stumbled to her feet and headed toward her apartment, only to turn back a few seconds later. She still needed to find Lara’s tiara. A few blocks ahead a fire engine raced through an intersection. Nearby a dog barked from the other side of a garden fence. She held her finger to her lips.

“No need for that,” she said. “I won’t hurt you, boy.”

As Grace made her way along the darkened streets she did a quick tally of the number of drinks she’d consumed. The fact that she and her friends had been to three different bars was very clear in her mind. She’d drunk wine at the first one, but after that it got muddled. She started counting again and was surprised when she’d hit six drinks. Grace was petite and prone to being underweight so one or two drinks was usually her limit. She couldn’t believe she’d managed six. No wonder she’d passed out. She was more surprised that she’d managed to wake up.

The tiara glittered like a Christmas ornament in the low-lying branches of the suspected elm tree. Grace set it back down on her wig, being sure to dig the combs deep into the weave. The beams from a pair of headlights swept across the houses on the opposite side of the street as a car made a sharp right-hand turn and headed toward her. It was the guy that had been following her. Grace pressed her body up against the elm and watched as Jordan’s late-model Bronco cruised along the block, its familiar engine rumbling out of tune. She stepped out into the open once he’d passed. One of the car’s taillights was out and the other blinked like an eye. She couldn’t make out the license plate. The Bronco stopped at the next intersection, but instead of going forward, it reversed at full speed.

Grace ducked through the nearest hedge and took off across a backyard in a sprint, stumbling on the hidden tree roots that snaked beneath the grass. She scrambled through an opening in a fence on the far side of the lawn and continued running across another property. Three more blocks of this and she’d nearly be home. In a break in the treetops she could just make up the dark outline of Pilot Hill, the highest point in the municipal park opposite her apartment building. She stopped running. It didn’t matter if she made it home or not. Jordan had been following her around Bolton for two weeks. He would know where she lived by now. As usual she’d let things go for far too long. Now she really had no choice. She had to call the police.

The lights in the back of the next house were still on. She climbed the steps to the porch and stood at the back door. Music was playing inside. It would be okay. All she had to do was knock and ask for help. She leaned her forehead against the door. She didn’t want to knock and she certainly didn’t want to ask for help. The people who tracked her down were mostly harmless; they usually moved on after a few days. She imagined they had a long list of famous crimes and the people associated with them. Like bird watchers they ticked them off one by one. As far as they were concerned Grace Adams was just another name.

A window to her right swung open and a man leaned outside. He lit a joint and rested his elbows on the sill to smoke. A woman laughed as she put her arms around him. He shrugged her off. She tried holding him again and he raised his voice.

“You really need to stop smothering me,” he said.

“Quit coming over if that’s the way you feel.”

A door slammed somewhere in the house. The man flicked some ash onto the porch and took another drag. Grace was only a few feet away from him. If he looked in her direction he’d see her standing there looking ridiculous in a soiled prom dress, her shoes missing. A wooden board creaked beneath her bare feet and the man’s head snapped up.

“Who’s there?”

Grace didn’t answer. She was ready to run if she had to. By the time he made it outside, she’d be long gone.

“I see you.” He struck another match and cupped the flame. “What are you doing hiding back here?”

“I was scared,” said Grace.

He frowned. “You’re all alone in the dark. It’s not exactly surprising.”

“I’ll go now. I’m sorry for trespassing.”

“Ain’t my house so I don’t give a shit. Want some?” he asked, holding up the joint. It was burned halfway down and looked like it had spent a long time in someone’s back pocket.

Grace said a quiet no.

“Do you need to come in and call someone?” he asked.

“It’s okay, I’m fine now. I just had a scare.”

“It’s Halloween. Isn’t that what you signed up for? Come into the light. I want to see what you’re wearing.”

Grace shuffled past him with her head down. She had no interest in showing off her costume. She was embarrassed and wanted to go home.

“It’s a lame costume,” she said. “No one knew who I was.”

“Let me have a guess.”

Grace stopped and looked up at him. He was older, probably in his late thirties, but had long hair. He didn’t look anything like Peter Pan but she could tell he was the type of man who never grew up.

“I know exactly who you are,” he said.

Grace checked that her blond wig and tiara were still in place. Her disguise was intact. He couldn’t know who she really was so she played along.

“I’ll give you three guesses,” she said.

“I don’t need three guesses. It’s obvious. You’re Carrie. Great movie, by the way.”

“You’re the first person I’ve met tonight who’s heard of it.”

“You need to hang out with a better class of friends. Are you sure you’re okay out there on your own?”

“Thank you but I’m fine. I just want to get home.”

He held up his hands. “Suit yourself. I’m not going to ask again.” He tilted his head. “Hear those sirens? There’s fires all over town tonight. I saw it on the news. Apparently, there’s a house on Madison…”

“Probably just kids.” Grace started down the steps. “I should go. My friends will be worried.”

“Don’t let anyone give you any shit,” he said. “As I recall, Carrie got her own back in that film.”

“Thanks for that.”

“No need to thank me. I didn’t do anything.”

He’d done more than he realized. Grace was no longer scared. Jordan was a coward. She’d been through too much in her life to let someone like him frighten her.

*   *   *

Grace took a shortcut through the narrow side yard and headed east, sticking to the long shadows thrown down by a fence bordering the sidewalk. She was on more familiar ground but that didn’t ease her troubled mind as much as it should have. Peter and Hannah Granger’s house was a short distance away. There was a time when Grace had felt like she was part of their family, but now she was careful to avoid Madison Road. Peter refused to speak to her since kicking her out of his writing workshop, and Hannah ignored Grace when they passed each other in the halls of the college’s art department, where Hannah was a professor. Grace had not coped well with her sudden exile. There’d been nights she’d been so miserable that she’d wanted to give up on college and go back home to Collier. She was still in Bolton only because Lara had hidden her car keys when those feelings had become overwhelming.

A police car sped past with its emergency lights on, only slowing as it turned onto Madison Road. Several people were gathered on the corner. Some stood alone and silent while others spoke among themselves. Their faces glowed warm and bright in reflected light. Grace smelled smoke before she saw flames. She rounded the corner and nearly tripped into the road. For a few seconds she couldn’t understand what she was seeing.

Two fire engines and several patrol cars were parked in front of what was left of Peter and Hannah’s home. Plumes of thick black smoke rose into the night sky as the fire engulfed the upper and lower floors. Paramedics were treating a fireman for smoke inhalation. He sat on the back bumper of an ambulance with an oxygen mask pressed to his face. A police officer shouted a question in the fireman’s ear and the fireman slowly shook his head. Grace made her way to the police barrier. Two officers stood with their backs to the growing crowd. She was about to tap the closest officer on the shoulder when Lara came rushing up. Her mascara had pooled in the hollows beneath her eyes. She grabbed hold of Grace with both hands and shook her hard.

“Oh my God, Grace. Where have you been?” Lara held up her phone as evidence. “I’ve been trying to call you.”

Grace swallowed back the lump that was forming in her throat. She couldn’t take her eyes off the house.

“My battery died,” said Grace.

Lara twisted Grace around so they were facing each other.

“You scared the shit out of me.”

Grace almost said something about Jordan, but now that she was sobering up he no longer seemed as threatening. She didn’t trust herself not to have exaggerated what happened.

“I passed out on someone’s front lawn,” said Grace, hoping that would be enough of an explanation.

“You said you’d be okay.”

“You probably shouldn’t trust drunk people when they say they’re going to be okay.”

Grace focused on the small round window positioned above the Granger’s front door. Backlit by fire, it glowed like an eye. It was as if Peter Granger was throwing her one last angry glance. She was tempted to throw one right back.

Grace had changed her surname from Adams to Larson before enrolling at Bolton College. For the most part it was easy to hide her past. It turned out that college was full of people who were trying to reinvent themselves, so Grace fit right in. The police only knew she lived in Bolton because she’d asked them for assistance on a few occasions. Jordan wasn’t the first man to track her down and wouldn’t be the last. She didn’t know how these men found her. She’d never spoken to the press and had only used the name Grace Larson online.

Grace was pretty sure it was Lara who’d told Peter Granger her real name. It was just the type of thing Lara would have done to get his attention. Grace had thought of bringing it up but couldn’t risk it. Flawed as she was, Lara was the closest thing Grace had to a real friend.

Peter had never really cared for Grace’s writing. He’d only asked her to join his writing group because he wanted to write a book based on what had happened to her in Collier. He’d freaked out when she refused to give him permission. Grace had been sitting next to Lara on a sofa in his office when he’d grabbed hold of her shoulders. He shook her so hard her nose started to bleed.

God knows I didn’t pick you to join this group because of your writing, which is shit by the way. For weeks you’ve wasted my time with schoolgirl fantasies. He’d dug his fingers into her shoulders and screamed. You’re Grace Adams for fuck sake. Quit hiding.

That was the moment she’d told Peter Granger to fuck off.

“I’m trying to figure out why I still care what happens to Peter and Hannah,” said Grace.

“You have every reason to hate them,” said Lara.

Lara’s continued loyalty to Peter had felt like another betrayal. Lara said she didn’t have a choice. It was Peter who’d helped her find an agent and had been giving her feedback on her debut novel. He was a famous author. She needed his help to get published.

Grace caught something in Lara’s eye.

“Have you finally seen Peter for the asshole he always was?” asked Grace.

“This isn’t the time to discuss our issues with the Grangers,” said Lara. She steered Grace away from the police officers. “We may have our reasons to hate them, but neither of us would ever wish them dead.”

“Were they inside?”

“I don’t know. The police won’t tell me anything.”

“Have you tried calling them?”

“They’re not picking up.” Lara’s fingers flew over her phone’s keys. Her voice was measured. “It doesn’t mean anything. They could be away somewhere. They’re always going on trips.”

Grace’s teeth were chattering. She needed to go home.

“Did you find Clare?” asked Grace.

“She’s on her way. Not sure where Taylor has been all evening, but the fact that she’s checked out of our lives again is hardly a surprise.”

“Could you call Clare back and tell her to bring our coats?” Grace hesitated. “I’ve also lost my shoes.”

Lara looked down at Grace’s bare feet and frowned. “How on earth did you ever survive all these years without me?”

Sparks shot up into the sky as a large section of the roof collapsed and the fire crew scrambled for safer ground. A cloud of dust and ash rolled across the road and blanketed the onlookers. Grit coated Grace’s bare skin. She could taste it on her tongue. It stung her eyes. This was all that remained of the home where Grace had once been so welcome. She’d drunk Peter and Hannah’s wine, shared their meals, and slept in their spare bedrooms. It was the first time Grace had felt like she was part of a proper family.

She’d met them at a party they’d thrown a year earlier. They’d been very specific when they invited Lara. She was to bring her friend Grace. Grace had thought it was odd but Lara wouldn’t let her say no, adding that Grace was her plus one. Grace had been so naive she’d had to ask what that meant. She’d been raised by a man who owned a trucking company and a woman whose life revolved around the church. Artists, authors, and intellectuals were outside her experience. She’d said that she wouldn’t fit in but Lara reassured her.

Peter Granger likes you. That poem you read at poetry night at the café blew him away. And you already know Hannah.

I’ve never spoken to her. She doesn’t know I exist.

Lara wasn’t having it. Don’t be ridiculous. She thinks your work is fabulous.

Grace had been taken aback at the way Lara had sauntered into the Granger’s house like she owned the place. She was heavier then and favored vibrant, close-fitting dresses. She’d been so flustered after Peter’s long hug she’d stumbled over her lines as she introduced Grace. Peter had taken Grace’s hand and kissed her on both cheeks.

That was a brilliant little poem you read. We must talk. Be sure to find me later.

Hannah had taken Grace by the arm before she’d had a chance to respond. It had felt strange being singled out when there were so many other guests gathered in the downstairs rooms, each one with a drink and a smile for their hostess. A woman wearing a white shirt and black trousers had handed her a glass of champagne. Grace had felt as if she’d been transported onto a film set. Nothing seemed real. Hannah had led her through the house, introducing her to everyone they met as the rising star in the college’s art department. Grace was only halfway through her sophomore year so she’d been surprised Hannah knew anything about her. Hannah was a well-known figure on campus. A retrospective of her paintings was on show at the campus art gallery and her graduate seminars were highly selective. She’d draped an arm around Grace’s slim shoulders and squeezed.

Someday soon you’ll be my student. She’d held Grace a little tighter. That’s when the fun will really begin. More champagne?

Peter had been drunk when he’d caught hold of Grace as she was coming out of an upstairs bathroom. If not for the sudden appearance of another guest, Grace may not have been able to slip away unmolested. It was only later that she learned that he and Hannah adhered to a very loose interpretation of their marriage vows.

*   *   *

Grace wrapped her arms around Lara and all she felt were bones. Lara had lost more than twenty pounds in past six months. Her sole focus was getting her book published, but so far there’d been thirty-six rejection letters from publishers and her agent was gently suggesting that Lara start something new. Lara wasn’t taking it well. Without anything more than a dream to sustain her, she was slowly wasting away.

Clare arrived at around half past one. She couldn’t believe it when she saw what Grace was wearing. They were all the same age, but that didn’t stop Clare from trying to mother her. After handing Grace her coat and some snow boots, she slipped her black leather gloves over Grace’s blue fingers.

“You need to take better care of yourself,” whispered Clare. “It can’t be good for you to get so cold.”

A man ran up and joined a group that was already gathered near them.

“Man, have you heard what happened at the K-Bar?” he asked. “Someone pulled a knife. It was mental.”

Grace pictured the man who’d given her his business card. She hoped he was okay.

Lara sipped coffee from Clare’s thermos. “Christ, did you hear that? It must have happened right after I left,” she said.

“It was a weird crowd,” said Grace. “Lots of guys from out of town.”

“My mom is going to freak when she finds out about tonight,” said Clare. “She only let me come to Bolton College because she thinks it’s safe here.”

 

Copyright © 2017 Karin Salvalaggio.

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Karin Salvalaggio received an MA in Creative Writing from Birkbeck at the University of London. Born in West Virginia and raised in an Air Force family, she grew up on a number of military bases around the United States. She now lives in London with her two children. 

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